Decrying their cabs as "sweatshops on wheels," about 150 taxi drivers circled Los Angeles City Hall on Tuesday, demanding that officials revamp rules that the cabbies say have left them struggling to make a decent living.
The drivers assailed the city's decision last month to award a consultant $250,000 to help it develop a new process regulating the taxi industry without holding a public hearing.
"We are honest, hard-working people, but the money we earn goes into someone else's pockets," said Tamirat Chilot, an Ethiopian-born driver whose taxi was among the procession of brightly colored cabs honking their horns in unison and driving slowly around City Hall.
Lisa Hansen, a spokeswoman for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, said the disputed consultant contract would be presented to the City Council for a likely public debate. She blamed an administrative error on the fact that the contract awarded to Nelson Nygaard Consulting Associates wasn't first presented to the council's transportation committee as requested.
"The city is committed to developing the best system that ensures high quality taxi service and addresses issues raised by taxi drivers," Hansen said.
But taxi drivers fear the whole process may now be "compromised," said Hamid Khan of the Los Angeles Taxi Workers Alliance, an activist group.
Under the current city-regulated system, protesters say, most of L.A.'s 2,300 cabbies barely clear the minimum wage, even after working up to 16 hours a day, sometimes seven days a week. Many cabbies suffer work-related health problems and stress, the drivers say.
Still, the drivers said, most of the millions of dollars generated annually in fare revenue ends up in the hands of nine cab companies awarded franchises by the city.
Activists liken the "exploitation" of cabbies, who are mostly immigrants, to the plight of janitors, carwash employees and other low-wage workers whose predicaments have triggered highly publicized labor campaigns in recent years.
The Taxi Workers alliance is putting pressure on the city to revise the current franchise system, which is scheduled to expire at the end of next year. Critics call the system rife with opportunities for corruption and fraud, including few protections for drivers. The shortcomings were identified in a 2006 UCLA study.
The current system, Khan said, amounts to "franchise slavery," tying drivers to companies that end up siphoning off much of the revenue.
Protesters at Tuesday's demonstration said they favored a process in which the city would award permits, or "medallions," to eligible, full-time drivers. Such a system, proponents said, would give cabbies greater freedom to choose whom they worked for and bolster their incomes.
Villaraigosa is open to all suggestions, including a medallion system, Hansen said.